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Selections from Van Wyck Brooks, New England Indian Summer 1865-1915.

            New York: Dutton, 1940

 

From Chapter 16: Indian Summer, pp. 347-53.

 The re­sult of the confrontation of summer people and country-people was a kind of covert warfare, a real class-war, though the friction never resulted in violence or blood­shed; and the country-people usually triumphed, except in the fashionable colonies where the lackeys abounded, be­cause, as often as not, the summer people, with their city cheapness, were the true grotesques. If this warfare sub­sided in time, it was largely because of the writers who acted as interpreters and filled the breach. Howells was one of these. With his knowledge of city and country alike, and his perception and charity, he brought together all sorts and conditions of men; and Sarah Orne Jewett, who knew her Howells, [1] and also knew the natives as a native, established for other interpreters a scale and a standard. Like Howells, she knew the world as she knew the village; and, as an admirable artist, she saw the village in the light of the "scale of mankind." [2] Her vision was certainly limited. It scarcely embraced the world of men, and the vigorous, masculine life of towns like Gloucester, astir with Yankee enterprise and bustle, lay quite outside her province and point of view. She spoke for a phase of New England, a scene that was fading and dying, the special scene her experience presented to her. But her people were genuine Yankees and stood for the rest. They all reflected her own transcendent self-respect and put the summer people in their places.

            Miss Jewett lived at South Berwick in Maine, up the Piscataqua, twelve miles from Portsmouth. She was "one of the doctor's girls," as people called her. Born in 1849, the daughter of Dr. Jewett, who had once been a professor at Bowdoin College, she had grown up with grandparents and great-aunts and uncles in a world of square, white houses, picket fences,—some of them ornamental, with high posts and urns,—and yards overflowing with larkspurs, petunias and asters, with hollyhocks and borders of box. When the fences were torn down, and the old reserve went with them, she felt that she belonged to an age that was passing; for she had shared in imagination the lives of all these older people who recalled the brisker days when the town was growing. Once an inland port, with a few old mansions, Berwick had carried on a busy trade, bartering timber for rum and West Indian molasses. Its ships had sailed to Russia for iron and cordage. John Paul Jones had recruited his men from the Berwick farms, [3] and later French prisoners of war had appeared on the river. In those days, ships from many countries had struggled up the channel, and even now two gundalows, fitted for lateen sails, were rotting by the wharf near the sawmill. But one felt as if all the clocks in the town had stopped, and as if the population had stopped with them. The gravestones outnumbered the people, and for those who were left the brooks no longer ran as they used to run, and the snow was not nearly so deep. There were certainly no such drifts on the schoolhouse steps as the older folk remembered.

            Such was the atmosphere, reflected in many a town and village, that enveloped Miss Jewett in her childhood. Her grandfather had owned the ships the names of which she knew as if they had been members of the household, and everything in the Jewett house, an ample, formal colonial dwelling, spoke of a time, once full, that was full no longer. The carving in the hallway was the work of three ships' carpenters, and the mirrors and the tables had been brought from England. The playroom was a chamber in the barn at the rear with a foresail from some old vessel spread over the floor; and whenever, as a little girl, Miss Jewett had wandered along the river, which separated Maine from New Hampshire, she found herself in abandoned mill-yards, dark-red, weathered ruins and haunted houses where cries were heard at night. The attics were full of yellowing letters, and the houses looked as if they said,  "Good heavens, the things that we remember!" The little girl was eager for impressions. She mounted the teams and listened to the talk of the drivers. She scrambled up the great white oaks, swinging from branch to branch and from tree to tree. Once she climbed to the top of Agamenticus, five or six miles away, and saw the White Mountains  in the  distance. Later,  on her horse, she roamed beyond, exploring the woodpaths and clearings, the cellar-holes and abandoned graveyards, the hollows where the lilacs bloomed in Maytime. She found forsaken orchards, with gnarled and tangled apple-trees spreading their shrivelled arms abroad; and often, at the end of some dim trail, she discovered the ghost of a garden, with honeysuckle, sweet marjoram, lilies and mallows. Sometimes, in a clearing, she happened on a lonely dwelling where an old woman sat on the doorstep, or she saw two sisters spinning yarn, stepping back and forth at their big wheels. But many of the houses were deserted and empty, with floors that creaked as she crossed them, and the windows shook in their loosened frames or lay in the grass below. She would build a fire in the crumbling hearth and imagine the life that had once been lived there. She liked these silent, long-lost places, with a few bits of bright colour relieving the green of the woods or the white of the snow. She seemed to die out of the world in this forest quiet, where everything was merged in the life of nature. When she was not alone, she was often with her father, who liked to take her with him on his rounds. The doctor drove along the country byways, through the low, straggling woods of spruce and fir, stopping here and there at some high hill-farm or some little house, blackened by rain, with its tangle of roses. His daughter, his favourite companion, sat beside him, and he told her the stories of his patients. She heard the secrets of these dwellings, grey as boulders and silent as the mounds in the graveyards, with their front doors locked and guarded by lilac-bushes and every blind shut tight. Secrets, hidden away from curious eyes, that no one knew but Dr. Jewett. She joined him in the smoke-browned kitchens and the darkened parlours, where a whale's tooth stood on the mantel with a ship drawn on it; or she waited behind the horse till the call was over, at the corner of the dooryard fence. Then, as they drove along, they discussed the household, or the doctor described some incident in the family's life. Perhaps the "last of the Jeffreys," [4] a sterile old scholar, was supported by his sister's little shop. Perhaps a lover had gone to sea, forty years before, and had come back as a tramp and no one knew him. Perhaps an old man, as he lay dying, had insisted that the grass in the yard should be cut, so that all this good hay would not be wasted when the folks came to the funeral and trod upon it. A will had been lost, perhaps: the house had gone to the cousins and the true heir, who had gone away to Boston and made his fortune, had found the will by chance and torn it up. Here was a lonely old woman who thought of herself as the queen's twin, because she had been born on the same day as Queen Victoria and had seen the queen once on a voyage to London; and here a mysterious stranger had appeared at the corners, a man who wore gaudy shirts and liked a dinner of boiled fowl and went every day to the graveyard, or a grey man who never smiled and who cast a chill over his neighbours whenever he softly opened the kitchen door. The doctor was a local historian, although he never recorded these stories, and his daughter might well have been a doctor. She debated his remedies with him, and she read his medi­cal books and his diaries. When later she wrote A Coun­try Doctor, describing her father's character, she imag­ined herself as the daughter who became a physician and greatly shocked the town by doing so. For women doc­tors were appearing in the country, and Howells and Miss Phelps wrote novels about them, Dr. Breen's Prac­tice and Doctor Zay, who lived in a Maine village, like Miss Jewett, and cured the young Bostonian, Waldo Yorke. Miss Jewett used her knowledge in other ways. It helped her to understand her people better, and to under­stand her people was all she wished. For Miss Jewett was a natural story-teller. She saw stories on every side, -- in a funny old man in a linen duster on a station platform, in an old country-woman on the train, with her basket and bundle-handkerchief, who had lost her farm, in a poor old soul who had run away from an almshouse. Growing up in Berwick, with music-lessons and German lessons, and with Cranford and Pride and Prejudice as her favourite stories, she had read The Pearl of Orr's Island; and this novel about Maine people living in a decaying harbour had suddenly opened her eyes to the world she lived in. The Atlantic accepted one of her sketches when she was not yet twenty, and eight years later, in 1877, she published her first little volume. This book, called Deephaven, was the story of two Boston girls who came to spend the summer in a town like Berwick. They opened the long-closed Brandon house and rediscovered their family past in the relics and bundles of letters in the drawers of the desks, in the neighbours who made braided rugs, in sea-chests filled with forgotten treasures, in the church where the flute and the violin were played in the gallery still. Miss Jewett found her own world in the persons of these Boston girls, and Howells caught, in the delicate fancy that marked this youthful book, the note of a rare new talent.

            This little corner of Maine, with the islands northward, was Sarah Orne Jewett's peculiar realm. She travelled early and late, -- as a girl to Wisconsin, and three or four times abroad, as far as Athens, -- but she always returned to Berwick and the house and garden where she had lived as a child and where she died. Her closest friend was Mrs. Fields in Boston, with whom she formed the habit of passing her winters, and she visited Celia Thaxter on the Isles of Shoals. When Mrs. Thaxter came to Berwick, the great event was a drive in the woods and a glimpse of a hermit thrush, if the friends were lucky, or a winter drive in the basket-phaeton to Witch Trot or along a ridge where the bare branches stood out clear against a cloud or a yellow sunset. Miss Jewett spent long days on the river in a rowboat, or, driving perhaps to York or Wells, she rambled about the narrow alleys where buildings stood cornerwise or had their back doors where the front should have been, where the roofs had windows in them and the streets were cobble-stoned and the grey, rough-shingled warehouses were covered with lichen. She knew the fishermen's cottages as well as she knew the farmer-folk, and she talked with the old sea-captains who basked on the wharves like drowsy flies that had crawled from their cracks in the spring, as worn as the driftwood and the ship-timber and rusty iron that were rotting away beside them. Sometimes she went to Tenant's Harbour, where, in the summer, she hired the schoolhouse for fifty cents a week and strolled to her morning's work through a bayberry pasture. In this "country of the pointed firs," with its long frost-whitened ledges and its barren slopes where flocks of sheep moved slowly, she found the Dunnet shepherdess and Mrs. Todd, the herbalist, and many of the scenes and persons of her finest stories, -- stories, or sketches, rather, light as smoke or wisps of sea-fog, charged with the odours of mint, wild roses and balsam. There, in the low, unpainted houses, mourners watched with the dead, and sometimes a funeral train wound over the hills, like a company of Druid wor­shippers or strange, northern priests with their people; or, looking seaward, one saw perhaps an island funeral, a coffin in a rowboat, covered with its black pall, and a line of little boats close behind it. On the shore, old sailors baited their trawls whose eyes had looked upon far-away ports, who had seen the splendours of the Eastern world and painted South Sea savages. They spent their idle times carving ship-models or a model of Solomon's tem­ple, following the Scripture measurements. As for the scattered islands, each had its story. One had its king, like Celia Thaxter's father, who had vowed he would never set foot on the mainland again. On another dwelt two families, divided by a feud, who had not exchanged a word for three generations. A hermit-woman occupied another, who thought she had committed the unpardon­able sin. But most of the people were like the trees that grew in the cracks of the rocks and kept their tops green in the driest summer. Miss Jewett knew where to find their living springs. No one since Hawthorne had pictured this New England world with such exquisite freshness of feeling.

 


From Chapter 20:  Boston in the Nineties, pp. 413-4.

 The Boston mind appeared to have lost its force. It was yielding, inch by inch, to the Catholic Irish; and the time was approaching when a Catholic Irish mayor of Boston was to say that the New England of the Puritans was as dead as Caesar. It was the Irish, he added, who had made Massachusetts a "fit place to live in,"—the Irish had had letters and learning when the forbears of New England were savages living in hyperborean forests. This last remark, was largely true; but still it was an unkind cut for the makers of New England. The Puritans who had conquered the Indians had not been so unkind. They had not poured scorn on the red men for their forest-existence, although, it must be added, the Puritans were not rhetoricians, -- they were not compelled to assert themselves by means of these floral displays. There were cuts on both sides. The Bostonians resented the Irish, though the case already had its compensations, -- the conquerors were bearing gifts for the joy of the conquered. John Boyle O'Reilly was one of these gifts; another, just emerging, was the lovely spirit of Louise Imogen Guiney, the essayist and poet. Miss Guiney was the daughter of an Irish lawyer who had commanded a regiment in the Civil War. Brevetted a brigadier-general, like Charles Francis Adams, -- as gallant as all the Irish fighters were, [5] -- he had been hopelessly wounded; and one day in Boston, twelve years later, he suddenly stopped in the street, removed his hat, knelt, crossed himself and died. Miss Guiney's spirit rode forward in her father's stirrups. None of this was lost upon the city of the Puritans. The Bostonians knew a soldier, as they knew a poet. What they had seen in O'Reilly they saw in the Guineys; and the Irish, in the Protestant form, had given them Godkin and both the Henry Jameses and William James. Heaven only knew what future gifts the conquerors had in store for a later New England; and the Yankees were not ungrateful to them. Some of Miss Jewett's best stories were tributes to them, and certainly Miss Jewett knew the Irish, -- she had spent the greater part of a year among them, once, at Bantry Bay [6]. It was in the nature of things that the Yankees resented the Irish, but they re­sented their own impuissance more. They could present no equal counterforce; they could not hold their end up any longer. They saw their glory vanishing before the invaders.


 

A Note from Chapter 21, p. 437.

 The reaction against realism was marked in New England, as in al­most every region in the nineties. It appeared in the most unexpected quarters. Thus the old New Haven realist, John W. De Forest, reemerged after a long silence with a romantic novel, A Lover's Revolt, dealing with Revolutionary Boston. Sarah Orne Jewett produced A Tory Lover, and even Mary E. Wilkins wrote a cavalier romance, The Heart's Highway.

            This romantic reaction, although short-lived, was completely romantic, unlike the similar reaction in the eighteen-eighties. Marion Crawford, Wil­liam Henry Bishop, Julian Hawthorne and Arthur Sherburne Hardy paid tribute to the force of the realistic movement by mingling realism with their romance. The later writers threw off all pretence of realism.


 

From Chapter 22: Country Pictures, pp. 456-7.

 Kipling made one or two visits to Gloucester at the time of the celebrations of the men who were lost or drowned in the codfishing fleet. With a doctor who had served in the fleet, he wandered about the water-front, dining in the sailors' eating-houses, boarding the schoon­ers, examining the compasses and studying the charts old and new. His head was full of the Grand Banks when he also visited the old T-Wharf in Boston. Then he wrote Captains Courageous in his house in Vermont, a prose transliteration of Winslow Homer that was meant espe­cially for boys. He had his own long thoughts about the Vermonters. He was struck by the loneliness and the desolation that other outsiders felt and the Yankees be­wailed,  What might have been attributes and powers were perverted there, it seemed to him, and strange faiths and cruelties flourished like lichen on sick bark.

            What Kipling thought about the natives other writers were also thinking, as many a story and poem had begun to show. For, whether in Vermont, in Maine or Massa­chusetts, this was the view that prevailed at the moment, and later. Few were able to see any longer what Sarah Orne Jewett saw at the ends of the grass-grown cart-tracks, choked by alders. The lights that glimmered in lonely windows suggested thoughts that were far from hers, although her idyllic scenes were sufficiently truthful. All that Miss Jewett saw was there, but how much that was sinister and dark she had failed to see! It was not the desiccation merely that struck the younger writers, but the skeletons in the cupboards, the sombre secrets. They could scarcely imagine a time when this world was alive.

 pp. 464-5

 … Miss Wilkins had a village mind. As long as she wrote in terms of the vil­lage, she possessed the village integrity and all the grand inheritance of the Puritan faith; and this gave her a pro­fundity that made her point of view, at moments, all but universal. But when she attempted to write novels, for which she was not qualified, and when she dealt with other than village types, she lost her universality and, along with this, the integrity that sprang from her village birthright. She did not understand the types Miss Jewett understood so well, the more cultivated life of the "mansion-houses," where the women wore "blue-lavender silk" instead of the calico dresses she knew, or instead of the "one black silk that stood alone." Her attitude towards all this was that of the other village women, resentful yet roman­tically dazzled; and as, with success, she moved from her early position and outgrew her resentment of the rich, her romantic admiration of them took the upper hand and she lost her hold on the verities for which she had spoken. She became unreal and self-conscious in the pres­ence of high life, regarding which she was driven to write too much, and she cut her people to fit the story instead of letting the story spring out of the people. But in some of her early tales, perhaps twenty or thirty, she was an eminent artist, as eminent as Miss Jewett, and even more so, because of the depth of feeling that informed her art. In one sense, Miss Wilkins warranted all the laments of Boston. She revealed the desolation of the Yankee ebb-­tide. But, better than anyone else, she also pictured the powers of last resistance in the Yankee soul. Was the Yankee soul at bay? At least, its lights were burning, -- this was the fact at the heart of Miss Wilkins's tales. It was quick to fight for its self-respect, and even for per­fection, whatever the odds might be and whatever its fate.



Notes

 [1] A passage in Howells's A Chance Acquaintance might well have been the germ of Miss Jewett's stories. It expresses a fancy of Kitty Ellison as she strolls with Mr. Arbuton about Quebec. " 'Why, it's Hilda in her tower,' said Kitty. 'Of course! And this is just the kind of street for such a girl to look down into. It doesn't seem like a street in real life, does it? The people all look as if they had stepped out of stories, and might step back any moment; and these queer little houses; they're the very places for things to happen in! ... I suppose there's a pleasure in finding out the small graces and beauties of the poverty-stricken subjects, that they wouldn't have in better ones, isn't there?' asked Kitty. 'At any rate, if I were to write a story, I should want to take the slightest sort of plot, and lay the scene in the dullest kind of place, and then bring out all the possi­bilities. I'll tell you a book after my own heart: Details,—just the history of a week in the life of some young people who happen together in an old New England country-house; nothing extraordinary, little, every-day things told so exquisitely, and all fading naturally away without any particular result, only the full meaning of everything brought out.'"
            One can hardly doubt that Miss Jewett was struck by this passage when she read it in The Atlantic in 1873. She had already published one of her stories, but the Details that Howells mentions is a sketch in advance of Miss Jewett's first book, Deephaven, published four years later in 1877.

 [2] Dostoievsky.

 [3]  Miss Jewett's historical novel, The Tory Lover, dealt with John Paul Jones and his time at Berwick and the men he assembled for the "Ranger."

 [4]  The Jaffrey siblings appear in "A Village Shop" (1888).  [Editor's note.]

 [5]   "In all the records of the Civil War there was no such thing as an Irish coward." -- Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

 [6]  Paula Blanchard places Jewett and Fields in Ireland for just a week, in June of 1882 (Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and her Work 138-9).  [Editor's note.]



Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.


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